In general, in my opinion, books are better than movies. There are numerous reasons for this, but the main one is that what I see in my mind’s eye is generally better than what I am presented with on the screen. I guess that the vision of the film-maker is what we’re given, and that all of us have a different sort of vision.
That’s not to say good films don’t come from good books. Jaws is a good example. The film leaves out a few juicy subplots that increase the tension on the boat, and the book actually makes the shark sympathetic. But that’s not to say the film isn’t a good film, because it is a good film – a very good film – it’s just not as good as the book, that’s all.
However, most films just don’t do justice to their source material. As a fan of Stephen King, I can say that ninety-plus per cent of films based on his works that I’ve seen don’t match the original, and even those I think are close – the Stanley Kubrick version of The Shining (which is a good film, but the madness is already in Jack, he’s not pushed over the edge by alcohol and the actual real ghosts in the building, although I love the photo at the end), or the Brian de Palma version of Carrie (another good film, but one which is let down by the standards of some of the acting, though Sissy Spacek was brilliant) – just aren’t as close as what I saw in my head when I read them. Especially Carrie. In my mind it was a lot darker and more violent.
Having said that, there are some books or stories that I enjoyed that have been given a film treatment that, to my mind, is at the very least equal to the original story. And here are my favourite five. (These are not my favourite five films, books or short stories or whatever – these are my favourite five adaptations. I know there are other films I have liked that have been adapted from other works, but I haven’t read them all, so I can’t comment on them in all fairness).
Frankenstein (1931) based on Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley (via a play by Peggy Webling).
The book is a fantastic piece if horror/sci-fi literature, and is something I think all fans of the genre should read. The monster is more articulate, and the focus is on emotion and the meaning of what it is to be human. The film, on the other hand, is a genuinely spooky horror film that takes the ‘what it means to be human’ motif and turns it into a ‘what should humans do’ one. But the reason why I think the film is the equal of the book is the atmosphere that the film has. The darkness, the castle, the laboratory, all of it adds to the feel of the film, which is different to the more cerebral feel of the novel.
Excalibur (1981) based on Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory.
This is one of two films where I saw the film before I read the book. I didn’t see the film until we got our first VCR in the early 1980s and the story intrigued me. I’d received a kiddie-friendly version of the story of King Arthur (and had seen and hated the Disney animation The Sword In The Stone) and the film, despite its R-Rating, was borrowed for me by my mother. I loved the film, and so when I read in the credits that it was based on Malory’s book, I hunted down a copy and read it (well, a translation of it). I don’t know if it was the language, or the extraneous detail, but I found it hard work. Now, the film isn’t perfect – the dialogue, in particular, has its ‘moments’ – but it is a fine telling of the tale and is visually stunning.
Blade Runner (1982) based on Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? By Philip K. Dick.
This is the second of two on this list where I saw the film before reading the book. But there is a rider – I read the book after seeing the film in the cinema in 1982, a film I liked but that was all. It did encourage me to read the book, which I found a little hard to follow with the subplots involving androids everywhere (including a fake police station), real animals, radioactive fall-out, Deckard’s wife and the rest. But then I saw a director’s cut of the film, and then another director’s cut, and the film was so much better. But the main thing is the film is so stunning visually, something I just could not conjure in my own imaginings.
Jurassic Park (1993) based on Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton.
Like many kids, I was a dinosaur fanatic as a child, but I held on to my love for prehistoric creatures into adulthood, and so when, in 1991 (my last year of my first stint at university, which is why I remember it) I saw a paperback about dinosaurs in modern times, I just grabbed it. I devoured it. The science sort of made sense, and the whole chaos theory stuff – while a little bit above my head – made it all seem so very plausible. And then the film came out. Less violent than the book, the thing that did it for me was the dinosaurs and their interaction with the humans. It was not anything I could picture in my mind – the sheer size and scope of these magnificent creatures was brought to stunning life in the film. Some cool scenes were left out, but it was a much tighter narrative for that. These two were definitely an equal with one another.
The Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King (2003) based on Return Of The King by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Like most people my age who played Dungeons & Dragons, I saw the books by J.R.R. Tolkien as required reading. And so I ploughed my way through them all. The Hobbit was fun, the first two books of The Lord Of The Rings trilogy were probably too long with more descriptions than you knew what to do with, and then there was the third book, the one with all the fighting and everything falling neatly into place. It was the book that made the series for me. And the films followed exactly the same pattern – instead of descriptions we had a lot of meandering vistas, though – with the third one being such a heady mix of adventure and the love of the characters for one another that its three-plus hours don’t feel like it. It won the Oscar for best picture (among 11 it won that year!) and deservedly so.
So… what did I get wrong? What did I miss out? Sound off in the comments below!